The Democratic White House contenders mounted a withering onslaught on President George Bush in their first official debate of the 2004 campaign, but came up with nothing to threaten Howard Dean's status as the front-runner.
The 90-minute debate, held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had been expected to produce the first concentrated attacks on Mr Dean from his rivals, especially the Massachusetts senator John Kerry, regarded as perhaps the most dangerous challenger to Mr Bush in the general election, but whose campaign has been eclipsed by the combative former governor of Vermont.
Instead Mr Kerry held his fire, and the eight candidates joined forces to lash Mr Bush for his handling of Iraq and the economy, the two issues they sense could open the way to the recapture of the White House next November. "This is the opening bell of the campaign," said Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who helped to organise the event.
The one exception was Joe Lieberman, vice-presidential running mate of Al Gore in the 2000 campaign, who accused Mr Dean of protectionist policies that would see "the Bush recession followed by the Dean depression". Otherwise it was open season on a President whose ratings in the polls are sliding back to their levels before 11 September, and whose re-election is no longer the near-certainty it seemed just a few months ago.
The pattern was set at the outset by Richard Gephardt, the former House majority leader and an influential early supporter of the war against Iraq. In a blistering attack, Mr Gephardt pronounced Mr Bush "a miserable failure" in his Iraq policy. "I some days just can't believe it; it's incomprehensible that we would wind up ... without a plan and without international co-operation to get this done."
The debate featured eight of the nine declared candidates: Mr Dean, Mr Kerry, Mr Gephardt and Mr Lieberman, Senators John Edwards of North Carolina and Bob Graham of Florida, the Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, and Carol Moseley Braun, a former Illinois senator. The only no-show was Al Sharpton, the firebrand civil rights leader whose plane was held up in New York by bad weather.
The caustic anti-Bush tone of proceedings was itself a reflection of the impact Mr Dean has had on the campaign, as he taps into the anti-war sentiment of Democratic activists - exactly the people who will be voting in the primaries that are now just four months away - and their almost physical abhorrence of Mr Bush and his policies. The others have been forced to toughen their language against the President and his handling of the war. But that has caused difficulties for candidates who backed last October's Congressional resolution authorising the war, above all for Mr Kerry, most directly threatened by the Dean surge.
On Thursday night a slightly different Mr Dean was on display. The angry outsider toned down his rhetoric. His sometimes acerbic criticism of his Washington-based rivals gave way to the more generous and conciliatory stance befitting a front-runner.
And only Mr Leiberman - who despite his high name- recognition after the 2000 election has had scant impact on the race thus far - went for the former Vermont governor head on. As well as challenging Mr Dean's trade policies ("We cannot build a wall around America") he took issue with Mr Dean on the size of the US troop contingent in Iraq.
Mr Dean insisted that any increase in troop strength in Iraq should come from other countries, adding: "Our troops need to come home." But Mr Lieberman, one of the strongest Democrat supporters of the war, flatly disagreed, saying: "I would send more troops. The troops that are there need more protection."
Even on the economy the main target was President Bush, and some of the candidates, mindful of their large Hispanic audience in New Mexico, even broke into rudimentary Spanish to make their point.
The best of them came from Mr Edwards. "The President goes around the country speaking Spanish," the North Carolina Senator declared. "But when it comes to jobs, the only Spanish he speaks is 'hasta la vista'." The gibe was vindicated yesterday when the latest unemployment figures showed that, despite recent signs of a revival, the economy shed another 93,000 jobs in August. It is the seventh consecutive monthly decline.
But Republicans are unruffled by the criticism. Calculating that the doom-and-gloom message of their opponents is out of touch with the national mood, the party plans a new TV ad campaign. It will argue that Democrats have nothing to offer the country, save bitterness and pessimism.
THE LINES OF FIRE
RICHARD GEPHARDT: "We cannot cut and run. We have a President who has broken up the alliances that Democratic and Republican presidents have put together over 70 years. It would be a big difference in Iraq if we had an international force there. The President is not doing his job."
JOHN KERRY: "Being flown to an aircraft carrier and pronouncing the words 'mission accomplished' does not end a war, and the swagger of a President who says 'bring 'em on' does not bring our troops peace or safety. He failed in his diplomacy. He has inherited the wind."
HOWARD DEAN: "In order to get the United Nations and Nato into Iraq, this President is going to have to go back to the very people he humiliated, our allies, on the way into Iraq and hope ... they will now agree that we need their help there."
JOHN EDWARDS: "Saddam Hussein being gone is a very good thing, good for the Iraqi people, good for the region. But we have young men in a shooting gallery right now. And the prime reason is that we have a President who did not have a plan."
DENNIS KUCINICH: "It is time to bring the troops home. It is time to bring the UN in and get the US out. There was no reason to go into Iraq in the first place, and everyone who assumed the responsibility has to answer to the American people."
JOE LIEBERMAN: "The administration let down our troops by not planning properly for the reconstruction [of Iraq]. This is an administration divided against itself, and the President has not brought it together. I would send in more troops to Iraq."
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: "They [the Bush administration] have no answer for the American people on how to get out with honour. It seems to me that is the challenge, and so I welcome the international community."
BOB GRAHAM: "What will be our long-term commitment in Iraq? What will we do about restarting the war against Osama bin Laden? What is our exit strategy? Who is going to pay this $60bn to $80bn [Mr Bush's expected supplementary funding request to Congress]?"Reuse content